Baby Birds, Butterflies, and DIY Bug Spray

gray_catbird_3I took a break while mowing this morning to pick up some sticks in the backyard. I went to throw them on the brush pile, and a small fluttering something on the ground caught my eye. A baby bird! At first I thought it might be a thrush, but then I saw its tail and I wondered if it might be a baby catbird. As if to confirm my suspicion, an adult catbird landed on a lilac branch about two feet away from me. With my attention diverted, the baby scurried away.

I scurried away too. I got a glass of iced tea and sat in the breeze to enjoy the backyard—mess that it is—for awhile. While I sat there the adult baltimore_oriole_6catbird returned, hanging around the smaller birdbath that it seems to favor. I saw a little movement back behind the lilacs, but didn’t espy the baby catbird again. I did see a female Baltimore Oriole, perhaps come to feed on the red-twig dogwood berries.

When I did resume mowing, I gave all areas near the dogwoods and lilacs a fairly wide birth. I didn’t want to take any chances; I like having catbirds in my backyard. They first showed up a few years ago, and each summer since, I’ve seen them more often. This summer I have seen them almost daily, both in the front yard in the ornamental lilac tree, as well as the back at the birdbath, on the fence, the high wires, and in the dogwoods. And the calls! Even when I can’t see them I often hear them. But this is the first year I’ve known they are nesting so close. I am exceptionally pleased to be hosting a catbird family!

The catbird wasn’t the first young bird that I’ve seen in the yard this year. A few days ago there was a fledging blue jay (with attendant parents) in the crabapple tree (mostly). Holy cow were they loud! Earlier a flock had (slowly) passed through—screaming and calling and laughing. I couldn’t tell if there were 20 or 50. A lot if them, though, prancing around among the leaves and branches near the tops of the trees. I couldn’t read. I could only watch them.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a fledging cardinal, also in the crabapple tree, also with both parents. (If you see cardinals and you wonder, you can tell the youngsters by their black beaks. The adults have bright orange bills.) If ever I have thought of chopping down the crabapple tree (and I have, because the squirrels use it as freeway central to my roof), I am loathe to do so after these fine, mesmerizing moments.

On another matter, while mowing the front this morning, some kind of nasty bugs kept landing on me and biting, hard! Always where I couldn’t see them. I finally ran into the house and grabbed my homemade bug spray (I had only tried it once before) and sprayed me, my clothes, and my cap. I had no more trouble with bugs. Maybe these particular nasty bugs just went away, or maybe it was the spray. I will continue testing. If you want to test for yourself, the recipe is below. It takes a couple of weeks for the herbs to infuse, but it’s still July, and at least in Minnesota, that leaves at least two months of biting bugs.

DIY Bug Spray

Take one large handful lemon balm, and a large pinch each of basil, thyme, and catnip. Chop fine (or tear up the leaves by hand—this is my preference), put in a jar, and cover (plus 2 inches) with witch hazel. (Witch hazel can be found in most grocery stores, co-ops, and pharmacies.) Put in a cool dark place (or at least a dark place—I use the linen closet) for two weeks, shaking daily. 

To use, strain the herbs using a fine mesh strainer (or cheesecloth). Then add enough water to the herbed witch hazel so the volume increases by half (e.g., if you have 2/3 cups witch hazel, add 1/3 cup water; if you have 1 cup witch hazel, add 1/2 cup water). Now add a few drops of essential oils: citronella, basil, lemongrass, thyme, peppermint, eucalyptus, clove. I didn’t have many of these, and added only citronella, lemongrass, and peppermint. It seems to be working. Play around with the oils, depending on what you have and your preferences.

Store in a glass bottle and spritz away!

great-spangled-fritillaryAs for the butterfly, that was a gift while I was sitting and drinking iced tea, waiting for the baby catbird to escape deep into the dogwoods. (Doesn’t it sound like I have a huge yard? It’s a tiny city lot.) It rather zipped through the backyard (the butterfly, not the baby catbird), not the dallying kind of butterfly I’m used to with my monarchs. Something in me said fritillary. And after looking in my books and talking to my butterfly friend, I’m pretty sure it was a great spangled fritillary.

Really, life doesn’t get much better than this.

Birds, Bees, and Bee Balm

Bee3I was out harvesting herbs today, and foraging in the bee balm (aka wild bergamot) was the largest bee I’ve ever seen. It was about the size of my thumb—bigger around, though not quite as long. It was at least 1.5 inches long, possibly closer to 2 inches. I looked in Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm and thought at first it might be a carpenter bee. But I went outside and took another look, and the abdomen was not black like the carpenter bee. I am stumped and have written to Ms. Holm to see if she can help me out. I hope to hear back! (She responded to a query once before, so there is precedent!)

I know we are facing a bee/pollinator shortage, but you couldn’t tell it from the bee balm. Or the hydrangeas, for that matter. Mostly bumblebees. Lots of bumblebees. Also lots of cabbage white butterflies. Honeybees, not so much. I’ve seen several monarch butterflies, and many many eastern tiger swallowtails, but only one mourning cloak butterfly. (I am just learning butterflies. I can identify perhaps 10 of them so far.)

TRKI_fullLast weekend I went birding at Murphy Hanrahan Park, my first visit. There had been sightings of a Tropical Kingbird for a couple of weeks, and I was hoping to add it to my lifelist. The location of the bird in the park was quite consistent (very helpful). I was with a couple of other birders in the Tropical Kingbird vicinity and we just sat at a picnic table and waited. Waited. Waited. A couple of false alarms (ooops, Eastern Kingbird, common in Minnesota in summer). And then, there it was! Way at the top of a cottonwood tree. This was quite a ways off, and so we started moving closer (you can hardly count it as a lifebird if you don’t see it well enough to identify it!), until finally we got some really good views, most especially of the bright yellow on the underparts. Beautiful. And so far out of range! Tropical Kingbirds mostly hang out in South America and Mexico and are occasionally seen in Texas and Arizona. Not a typical Minnesota sighting!

hummerThe other unusual thing of the day was the number of stationary hummingbirds that I saw. Almost always I see hummingbirds flying around, but on this day, they were mostly perched on the top branches of small trees, and a few on electrical wires. I saw nine of them. Not one of them was flying.

And loons! I did not see them, but I heard them. (That was odd too. We were sitting hoping for the kingbird, not a drop of water to be seen. And then we hear loons. I see loons much more often than I hear them, so the eerie but beautiful wail was an extra treat. But it was odd to hear them and look around and see only grass and trees!)

herbsThe garden harvest is in full swing. I’m picking chamomile almost every day. Today I harvested rosemary, sage, mullein, plantain, and thyme. These I will be drying for use over the winter. The raspberries are coming in, and most of them are going to the birds. But I usually find a few to eat while I’m picking the chamomile. I’ve got several tomatoes (though they are all still rather small and green) and lots of blossoms for future tomatoes.

July: I hate the heat but I love the harvest.

When Books Change Lives

A recent convergence of books has caused me to rethink some of my eating behaviors and implement some changes. The three key books were:

CCThe Compassionate Carnivore probably had the greatest impact, both because it was first and because she doesn’t beat you over the head with anything, and because she provides such a reasonable approach to changing behavior. As I was finishing it, I decided to move away from industrial meat (factory farms, antibiotics for growth purposes, cramped stressful conditions) and towards meat raised sustainably. Happy meat, Friend calls it.

At first I thought it would be a snap: Just buy all my meat at the co-op or the farmers’ market. We already buy most of our meat at the co-op; a full switch wouldn’t be that big a deal. I felt so virtuous. But then I remembered eating out. And how very much I eat out. Mind you, I eat out a lot less than I used to when I was working, but I still eat out several times a week. And I often eat meat. And I’m pretty sure it isn’t from small local farms.

Here is where Friend encourages you to be kind to yourself. She offers a variety of options and a way of making it sound really quite easy to start the journey. Since I’ve been enjoying cooking so much and one of my goals has been to eat out less, I’ve decided to step up the cooking and pull way back on eating out. And when I do eat out, I’m going to try to go more often to restaurants that have relationships with farms (Muffaletta and W.A. Frost come to mind). These restaurants are often more expensive (but not always, and especially at lunch), but if I’m eating out much less, that would more than cover any increase in expense.

hamburgerOf course I don’t always control the dining venue, so in these cases, Friend suggests going with a meatless option. Or, if you really just want a hamburger, give yourself a break and get a hamburger.

So cooking at home more, eating out less, and eating sustainably raised (and humanely butchered) meat is my primary preoccupation.

Third PlateBut reading The Third Plate broadened my horizons beyond meat. The Third Plate has actually gotten me to consider growing grain in my back yard and getting a little hand mill and milling my own flour. Seriously, how cool does that sound?

And both The Third Plate and Another Turn of the Crank talk a lot about our relationship to the land. Taking care of the land. Giving back to the land. Land Stewardship. Aldo Leopold’s name keeps coming up. (His A Sand County Almanac is one of my all-time favorite books.)

sand countyLand stewardship. That has brought me to my next change: Working to disengage from the rest of the industrial food sector. I no longer wish to add to the coffers of Cargill and Monsanto. (Even though Cargill IS a local company. Then again, so is Hormel.) I don’t expect I’ll ever be 100% successful at this. It will be a challenge just at the store (can I really give up my Gedney dill pickles? I’m pretty sure I don’t want to give up my Gedney pickles and will find an excuse—at least they’re local—not to) and would make dining out nigh impossible. But I can start moving in that direction. Even if I just start with one food item (cheese?) or one food group (dairy?) it would be a start.

I want to support farmers who are supporting the earth, working with the land, living on the land. Too many farms these days have absentee landlords (and I’m not talking about the small farmers that also have day jobs in town).

I’m still thinking about raising hogs. That would certainly be putting my principles into action!

WBAnd I’m also continuing my reading in this area, in an effort to reinforce this new direction I’m moving in. I’ve already finished Farm Anatomy (and written about it—an excellent and fun book, even if you have no interest in farming at all), and have started The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement, as well as Heal Local. And I think I’ll start another Wendell Berry book pretty soon.

And we will just take it one meal (and one shopping trip) at a time. Baby steps.

A Book to Savor

Farm anatomyYou know how sometimes when you’re reading a book that you really really love, you slow down towards the end, or you keep finding reasons to set it down so that it doesn’t have to end? That usually happens to me with fiction, but not so much with nonfiction. Until now.

The book that I couldn’t put down yet didn’t want to finish is titled Farm Anatomy. It may not sound so very appealing, but that is exactly what this book is: appealing to the 10th degree. It is a treat for the eyes, plus I learned a ton!

The full title of the book, Farm Anatomy: The Curious Parts & Pieces of Country Life, may give you a wee bit more insight to the book’s character. The author, Julia Rothman, is an illustrator, hence the visual appeal of the book. But, as mentioned above, it isn’t just pretty, it’s educational.


There is a small section on cloud formations and what various types of clouds indicate about upcoming weather. Altostratus clouds indicate stormy weather, while stratus clouds create fog and drizzle. I learned about different types of barns (I don’t believe I was aware there are different kinds of barns), and different types of trusses. I learned about farm machinery and the difference between a cultivator and a harrow. I learned how to fell a tree and stack a cord of wood.

This was particularly fun over the weekend as we were driving through farmland. We often pass by the Littfin Truss assembly plant, and this time as I looked I noticed that there are in fact several different kinds of trusses—something I had never noticed before. (Rothman illustrates 10 different kinds of trusses.) And those farm implements I had idly wondered about several times I now identified as disk harrows.


In the food section she illustrates all kinds of fruits and vegetables, including popular varieties of summer and winter squash, varieties of dry beans, types of corn (as well as the parts of the corn plant), pepper and eggplant varieties, popular tomatoes, different kinds of carrots, herbs, kinds of millet (I didn’t know there were different kinds of millet), and apples. There’s more but I think you might be getting the idea.


She includes a number of recipes (illustrated, of course): borscht, freezer dills, carrot cake, dandelion wine, and several more. I am particularly  interested in trying the oven lamb stew. It makes me long for autumn!

In the section on animals you learn the parts of each animal (rooster, cow, goat, horse, pig, sheep, rabbit, and bee) common terms, common breeds, and something fascinating about each and every one of them.

comb styles

In the Wining and Dining section, we learn about edible flowers (calendula, marigold, nasturtium, bachelor’s button, dianthus, and violas), breadmaking, cheesemaking, and how to cut up a chicken. There are also bits on pressure canning, building a simple smokehouse, making maple syrup, and root cellaring. She winds up with carding and making yarn, candles, quilts, rag rugs, and how to make a flower press.

Something for everyone.NA

She has another book out, Nature Anatomy, which looks every bit as fascinating. I may start it tonight.

June Reprise

June was mostly about the yard and spending time on the porch reading. Also listening to and watching the rain. We had a couple of really nice thunderstorms. I read 11 books in June, 5 nonfiction and 3 each poetry and fiction. I’ve already written about the most outstanding reads (Award-Winning Books). Award-winning books was a fun monthly theme, and I covered a bit of territory: Alex Award (2), New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA) Award (2), Minnesota Book Award (2), Ernest Sundeen Prize in Poetry, Newbery, John Burroughs Medal (2), James Beard Foundation Award, National Book Award, and the Lambda Literary Award.

But June was mostly about plants and planting and even some harvesting. First things first: I have all my plants in the ground (or in pots) excepting one blackberry bush that a friend is giving me. (She promises it will overwinter in the pot and I don’t need to plant it until next year. Since she knows a lot more about plants and gardens than I do, I will choose to believe her!)

raspberryMy currants are just ready to harvest. There are still a few left. Not many. I don’t mind so much: I like sharing my food with the animals. I might wish they would leave me a bit more though. I am getting blueberries! I only planted these last year, but it appears that I am going to have a small crop of blueberries. (Very small.) The raspberries are starting to turn red. The tomatoes are just starting to blossom. The berries are coming in on the red-twig dogwoods (robins and vireos, in particular, love these berries).



The swamp milkweed is starting to flower, but no signs of pods yet. On the exciting front, I have finally got some common milkweed in my yard. My neighbor has a very fine patch of it and has given me many seed pods which I have scattered with abandon to no effect. Until this year! I noticed four common milkweed plants while mowing the lawn earlier this week (I almost ran over one of them). Between the butterflyweed and the swamp milkweed, I have already seen a monarch caterpillar and a monarch butterfly.

In herbland, the hops are coming up nicely, it appears the lemon balm might be coming back after all, the comfrey is flowering and spreading, and the feverfew is in full bloom. I harvest a handful of chamomile flowers pretty much every day, and I’ve also put up some rosemary and sage to dry (for winter cooking). My big failure in the garden last year was insufficient harvesting. I am trying to be a better steward of the plants this year. (But also not over-harvesting which I did last fall to a couple of plants. They taught me a lesson by not returning.)

I’ve already harvested both catnip and yarrow twice, using them together in a brandy-based tincture that I have found to be quite helpful when taken at the first sign of cold or flu.

I don’t do a lot of cooking in the summer but we had a few cool days in June and I was pulled into the kitchen. I made my first shepherd’s pie (futzy but fun, and not bad at all), rhubarb sauce (twice), pork chops with apples and rhubarb (very good), and refried beans. I’ve also gotten into the habit of making extra and freezing things so we have a few decent meals for really hot weeks when I just can’t stand the thought of cooking.

Lightning2June is not so much about birding. By the time June rolls around, I’m usually feeling a bit birded out and my interest turns more to the garden. It’s one of the wonderful things about the natural world: There’s always something to capture your interest. Birds. Ants. Monarchs. Thunderstorms. Something as simple as mowing the lawn can lead to a discovery.